Crusade and Jihad – Christian and Muslim wars

Is the Christian ‘Crusade’ and the Muslim ‘Jihad’ more or less the same thing – simply for a different religion?  Or is the concept of jihad fundamentally different from crusade?   One argument advanced to me in the last few days is that Jihad is different because it’s enshrined in the theology of Islam, evidenced by the Prophet’s many wars against rival tribes, whereas the concept of crusade has no theological foundation in the New Testament.  Jesus never took up a sword against his enemies – whereas Mohammed most certainly did.

This argument then runs that Islam was spread on the tip of a sword from Mecca and Medina through the Levant, Persia, Asia Minor and the Maghreb up in to the Iberian peninsula.   It was always a warlike creed that used war and subjugation to spread its faith.  Those adhering to this view also like to say that the crusades of the eleventh and twelfth centuries that brought in to being the Knights Templar were not an act of colonialism by Christians aimed against Muslims but a belated response to the offensive Islamic takeover of the Levant, with its holy places, four hundred years before.

It is true that the Middle East had been Christian for almost as long as it had been Muslim by the time the Crusades of the Middle Ages were launched.  There was nothing inherently Islamic about Egypt or Syria from the early medieval point of view.  Christianity had an equal if not superior right to be the dominant religion in that part of the world.  With large Christian populations still present in the Middle East at that time, this was not a tiny Christian force from the west landing in a Muslim sea but a western Christian force pushing back the more recently arrived religion.  After all, Christian Byzantium was still a might power in Asia Minor and had only been pushed back towards Constantinople by the Seljuk Turks in the decades before the First Crusade.

So why have the Crusades received such a resoundingly bad press?   Why indeed, has the Islamic jihad of the seventh and eighth centuries not been seen as an equally provocative act – performed on a far grander and bloodier scale?   Well, one reason has to be the suspicion that the Christian crusades were not the noble venture they were portrayed as – but more of a land grab by some of the less savory elements of Christian Europe.  That the crusaders were not men of Christ but barbarous ‘Franks’.  In comparison to the people they were cutting down in cold blood, they were uncouth and unlettered.

It’s certainly true that Islamic culture in the so-called Dark Ages of western Europe compares very favorably in the four hundred years up to the crusades – it was a time of great learning and receptiveness to the heritage of the Greek Roman and Persian worlds.  Ironically it was in part the crusades that would lead to a gradual closing of the Islamic mind as many came to believe their laxity of belief and practice had incurred the displeasure of Allah and therefore the loss of land to the crusaders.  Saladin was very much a product of this view.   As were the Almohads in Morocco and Iberia.

The crusaders were so brutal in their conquest of Jerusalem itself that their own chroniclers boasted of the blood of the city’s citizens splashing their stirrups as it flowed through the streets.   One story has it that more many years, Arabs would paint their doors blue to ward off the ‘evil eye’.   The evil eye in question being the blue eyes of the Frankish invaders.  Crusade was a far more mindlessly aggressive act than Jihad – many Muslims would argue.

Another argument from the Muslim side would be that Jihad is a moral and personal journey and not a military struggle.  But I would have to counter that even the most cursory reading of the Koran and of the life of Mohammed is enough to show that he certainly intended the struggle of Muslims to involve, on occasion, wielding a sword.  Even if, strictly speaking, Ghandi’s peaceful struggle for independence in India can be described by Muslims as a jihad – most jihads in history have involved a warlike stance.    And as this website points out, jihad is an obligation to all believers to go out and convert or rule over the non-believers.

A look around online will show you that this discussion arouses great passions and I’d be curious to hear any views on this blog.

And here’s some medieval Jihad/Crusades to entertain in the meantime:


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